Walking with the wind | AspenTimes.com

Walking with the wind

Charles Agar
Savannah Otto, left, and Ella Munk, right, led by Jay Swan, center, make a "rainbow" with a noodle as part of their exercises at the WindWalkers Equine Assisted Learning and Therapy Center in Carbondale. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

Ella Munk has Williams Syndrome, a genetic disease that causes medical and developmental problems. Ella’s mother, Stephanie, said that Ella’s time with the downvalley nonprofit WindWalkers has not only built Ella’s core strength and balance, but has taught her focus.”The outside of a horse is good for the inside of humans,” said Molly Robison, development director of WindWalkers.The growing Carbondale nonprofit is an equine learning and therapy center. The aim is to help kids with genetic, social, emotional or physical challenges grow and learn by working with horses.WindWalkers will hold a fundraiser on Saturday at the Cedar Ridge Ranch. Sarah Newton-Cromwell and Jay Swan started WindWalkers one year ago. The name comes from a Native-American elder who saw “sidewalkers” walking alongside to spot young riders and called them “wind walkers.” The name stuck.WindWalker clients come from every walk of life, including kids with no specific challenges, who just want to learn to ride – adults too.”We want our clients to have increased self-esteem and as much independence as possible,” Robison said. Safety is a top priority, and riders are under constant guidance.The horses are calm, and horse handlers guide the animals by the reins while the sidewalkers follow along and make sure kids don’t fall off.

Ella rides with Savannah, who is in the horsemanship program and has no developmental challenges. Robison said that the two ride as peers and teach each other.”Walk, please,” said Ella, instructing her handler to guide her horse ahead.

“We let them figure it out,” said Swan, leading Yeller forward. “It’s all about teamwork and problem-solving.”Using voice commands to their handlers, and with sidewalkers close at hand, Savannah and Ella bring their horses side by side and form an arch with two pink pool noodles.”Yeah, baby,” said Ella, when the job was done.”We don’t get stuck on methods,” said Swan. “We play.” Both Swan and Newton-Cromwell are certified therapeutic riding instructors.

“When she is riding, she has to make decisions,” said Ella’s mother, Stephanie. “She feels confident now.” Trainers used to have to remind Ella to “butt scoot” when she was sliding to one side, Stephanie said, but now Ella adjusts her balance herself. Stephanie is delighted with the new “sense of empowerment” in her daughter.While Ella was scared and shaking on her first rides, today she comes to the ranch saying, “I’m going to trot today, Mom.”And Ella and Savannah don’t just ride – they help out with the tack, and they groom their horses before leading them to their stalls at day’s end. A lot of schooling programs, Robison said, bring horses out ready to ride, but at WindWalkers grooming and saddling horses are an important part of the program. The best part about WindWalkers, said Swan, is that it is a family center where parents can ride along with kids who have challenges. The place is a positive, welcoming environment, with dogs, horses and kids, Swan said.

“I love being where the miracles happen,” said Carolyn Cox, a volunteer from El Jebel. “It centers me,” she added.Pam Johnson owns the 102-acre Cedar Ridge Ranch with her husband, Randy. The Johnsons charge WindWalkers to board their horses but donate office space. Johnson said the program is not only good for the kids, but it also gives a job to horses who might otherwise be out to pasture. She hopes Saturday’s fundraiser will spread the word about WindWalkers.”We’re always looking for volunteers,” Robison said, and no prior experience with horses is required – staff will train you on-site.The WindWalker’s fundraiser starts at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Cedar Ridge Ranch in Carbondale. Tickets for a barbecue dinner, drinks, silent auction and an evening with Wayne Faust – “The Banjo Man” – cost just $50 and are for sale at the door. For more information, call 970-963-2909.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com.

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